Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Tue 18 Nov 08 22:53
Amy, I'm curious what you've learned about the role of native and/or wild foods in the taste of place. Most of our agricultural crops, of course, derive from far-off genetic origins. Even the traditional crops that seem 'age-old' like the ones in France are almost all imports, having been originally domesticated elsewhere. In a few places in the book you mentioned wild foods - Madame Pampille, who had such strong feelings that only the French wild game was worth eating and called German and Hungarian hares "stupid and without flavor," and the garrigue imparting the flavor of the wild herbs to the grapevines. Shagbark hickory nuts as served at L'Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin, which are so labor-intensive to shell that they may never become widely available commercially. I've been recently doing work that involves learning about the native foods of my area, which is difficult because the Native American culture that was here previously was so comprehensively wiped out by the missions, and because the intense urbanization that followed killed off so much of the native landscape. As hunter-gatherers go, a lot of the coastal California natives had a pretty good thing going with their acorn-centric diet; our native Quercus agrifolia was so productive that food shortages were very rare and relatively large fixed settlements were possible. And yet the tradition of eating acorns is totally gone; even in the crunchiest health food stores I've never seen any kind of native acorn food product (though we can still get chia seeds.) I recently had the opportunity to meet with a native plant expert who knows a lot about the foodways of the Tongva; I asked her if she'd eaten acorns, and she said yes. "They're pretty bland," she said, but then went on to point out numerous plants around her little garden that would have been used for seasonings. Besides the fact that I feel curiosity about what these native foods taste like, and maybe have a sentimental yearning to feel some connection to the landscape around me by trying these foods, I also think there may be a role for native food plants in helping make agriculture more sustainable. The Land Institute in Kansas has been working for decades on developing a form of agriculture that uses mixed perennials, many of them native to the Great Plains, which were home to some of the deepest topsoils on the planet before we started strip-mining them for short-term productivity gains. We can't go back to being hunter-gatherers, but maybe we can improve the ecological impacts of our agricultural practices by paying closer attention to local appropriateness and diversity of our food crops and being inspired by the native ecosystems that once inhabited our landscapes. That strikes me as a win-win, since in the process we could also create for ourselves a more varied, interesting and healthful diet.
Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Tue 18 Nov 08 23:01
well, and duh, I just got through all that and realized that the maple syrup is a native food too!
Earl Crabb (esoft) Tue 18 Nov 08 23:54
Might as well toss in some marsh grass, too, zizania palustris, often called wild rice where I grew up.
Maria Rosales (rosmar) Wed 19 Nov 08 02:19
Isn't "native" a matter of how far back in time one goes and how big of a circle one draws around a region? Don't plants naturally migrate?
Amy Trubek (katherine) Wed 19 Nov 08 05:30
Anne has brought up a fascinating point when considering the taste of place in the United States - what about the numerous Native American traditions that existed before the European agrarian tradition was brought here? I do focus more on what might be understood as European legacies in The Taste of Place, although maple syrup is a native American tradition. Since my focus is always first and foremost on human communities, I define native in terms of native American communities and the plants and animals they made part of their culinary cultures. I am in no way an expert on such topics. A good reference is Gary Paul Nabhan, an ethnobotanisit who has worked for years documenting Native american foodways in his region and also created a project "Reviving American Food Traditions" with Slow Food that aims to document earlier foodways and encouraging bringing back the practices. A book of that name just came out that might be helpful. He also wrote one of the first local food memoirs, Coming HOme to Eat which you might enjoy. And since we are moving right into Thanksgiving, how do we revitalize the native American traditions of harvesting and cooking when we create our meals in the future?
Cupido? (robertflink) Wed 19 Nov 08 07:21
I understand that the taste of fish depends to some extent on the water they live in which can change with time of year as well as place. For example, trout live in both freestone and limestone streams. Have you run into any information in this regard?
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Wed 19 Nov 08 07:34
The taste of fish is more connected with what the fish eat, I believe, though I wouldn't be surprised if water type makes a difference, too. The flesh of golden trout in certain High Sierra lakes is pink, sometimes stunningly so, due to a diet of certain types of nymphs and such.
Maria Rosales (rosmar) Wed 19 Nov 08 08:16
That makes sense. It reminds me of the way that honey varies so much by time and place.
John Ross (johnross) Wed 19 Nov 08 18:00
(rosmar), are you saying that honey from the same crop (e.g., fireweed, clover, huckleberry) is different in different places? The time depends on what's ripe, doesn't it? It's certainly true that "wildflower" honey varies, but "wildflower" means "we don't know where the bees have been."
Amy Trubek (katherine) Thu 20 Nov 08 04:17
I was just having a great discussion about honey with a group of University of Vermont students, most of whom were agroecology majors. We were talking about varietal honey, which is must prized in Europe and elsewhere. [I just want to point out that in any definition of terroir used in Europe varieties of plants and breeds are always a part of a formal AOC designation and also on the ground local knowledge when discussing the taste distinctiveness of food or drink) With honey, time in the season (and thus place since Vermont growing seasons and Alabama growing seasons are vastly different) make a huge difference in flavor. I have a friend here who is an apiarist and we did a tasting of his various hives before he blended. The honey that came primarily from buckwheat was stunning and nothing at all like the red clover honey we also tasted. I can't really describe it but almost "hoppy". A student in our discussion said he was taking a dendrology course and the professor said that bees only pollinate one type of plant at a time, which would mean that yes, you could guarantee a particular varietal honey. In France there are a few AOC honeys and most honeys are sold according to dominant plants used. As to fish, I have discussed this with some others and definitely water temperature and food consumed make a big difference. Rowan Jacobsen just wrote a book on oysters where he talks a bit about the terroir of oysters.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Thu 20 Nov 08 04:59
Amy, do you think the word "terroir" is on the verge of over-use (if it hasn't crossed over already) in the way "organic" has become over-used? It seems there isn't a winemaker in America today who doesn't say his or her wines express terroir, but of course some wines show it more than others, which weakens the word. In addition, I think many Americans, and perhaps most, are still confused by what, exactly, "terroir" means. We can easily understand the definition (and you provided a quite excellent one in a post above), but tasting terroir is another thing entirely, and this is where I think a lot of people are stumped. Moreover, there's the power of suggestion: when a winemaker tells me that this or that wine shows the minerality of the soils in which the grapes were grown, I can't help but taste for minerality. The winemaker's comment biases my palate, in other words. Yet terroir *is* tasteable, as you point out in the example of the different honeys. But in the examples of the apples we discussed a few days ago, I wonder how many people can taste the terroir difference in apples as opposed to the difference in strains or types. I'm not sure I can, though like most people I can taste the difference between a macintosh and a delicious, say. But perhaps tasting terroir matters less for some foods and beverages than others.
(wiggly) Thu 20 Nov 08 11:14
At the risk of becoming the "one time, at band camp" participant in this discussion, the seasonal variation in alp butter is really noticeable. There's a period in spring when the flowers in the fields are at their peak, and I swear you can taste them in the butter. Later, grass predominates. Some farmers claim to be able to taste the difference between butter and cheese produced in adjacent valleys, but without a blind tasting there's no way to tell if it's farmer folklore or a real difference. I certainly can't make such a fine distinction - but perhaps I could if I ate their local dairy products my whole life.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 20 Nov 08 12:23
That's actually a plot point in the book Heidi Grows Up.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 20 Nov 08 12:47
Familiarity sure makes a difference!
Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 20 Nov 08 13:03
I can't even claim "one time, at band camp," because the first time I heard the word "terroir" was in this very discussion. So, for me, the word has been hardly over-used. I guess it depends entirely on the circles you travel in and clearly I need to widen mine. But, if it weren't for this discussion, I wouldn't have known.
(wiggly) Thu 20 Nov 08 13:08
I thought I was pretty well-versed on the subject, but I had no idea that the French had so deliberately supported the development of terroir until I read The Taste of Place.
Cogito? (robertflink) Thu 20 Nov 08 15:11
Any comments as to why people may want more uniformity in the food supply as to appearance as well as taste? I recall the my mother baked all our bread, mostly whole wheat, until my Dad bought a grocery store. My mother said she couldn't get us to eat her homemade bread after we had the white spongy stuff (in 1943). Was it all just advertising?
John Ross (johnross) Thu 20 Nov 08 17:55
Regarding apples, the trees at Mount Vernon used genetic stock from France and England, possibly grafted to different root stock from what had been used in Europe. In some varieties, the sugar and acid content is different from the European friut. If "terroir" includes soil, climate and water for irrigation, those are the growing characteristics that differ between Normandy and the Skagit Valley.
paralyzed by a question like that (debunix) Thu 20 Nov 08 21:37
Slipping into the discussion because of the honey references above. My brother has been keeping bees for a decade or so now, and he has won the blue ribbon at the county fair for 3 out of 4 years in a row (one year he missed the entry deadline). His "secret" is that his bees live in his suburban backyard, with a huge variety of native and ornamental plants, grasses, and fruit trees in the neighborhood. So his honey is very complex and spicy, directly reflecting the complexity of the nectars harvested by the bees. But fond as I am of his honey, it strikes me that terroir as expressed by honey is not at all the same as terroir expressed by onions or wines or cheese. Honey is a concentrate of the nectars the bees feed on, whereas the plants or the cow must first process the landscape they grow/feed upon, breaking it down into small components, and then building those back up into the bulbs or fruit or milk that we eat or process into fruit. It's not the soil of the vineyard we're tasting, but the grapevines' response to those growing conditions (or the onions plants', or the cows'). It's really a minor point, because the plasticity of the plants' responses encompasses plenty of variety, even so.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Fri 21 Nov 08 04:02
It's not a minor point, I don't think. Response is a big part of terroir. The best definition of terroir that I've ever seen appeared in Steve Heimoff's book "A Wine Journey Along the Russian River." He quoted a winemaker who was commenting on the Rochioli vineyards out on Westside Road near Healdsburg. I'll need to paraphrase, because I don't have the book at hand just now, but more or less the winemaker said: "Terroir is made from the series of choices we make in the vineyard and at the winery from the options Nature gives us."
Amy Trubek (katherine) Fri 21 Nov 08 06:15
The quotation from Steve Heimoff's book is wonderful - he doesn't deny a certain type of cause and effect quality to capturing terroir while at the same time asserting the human dimension to terroir. I, too, believe that terroir is the result of a series of choices, but not simply the choices of one winemaker in one specific locale, but the choices made in a region or a nation regarding what is valued about food. His idea reminds me of Randall Grahm's notion of 'terroir intelligence' which I mentioned in an earlier post. We can get very involved in the fine grained differences of the final organoleptic and sensory properties of a certain wine, or honey or hard cider and the influence of the specific natural environment, but it is my hope that embracing terroir intelligence creates something broader - a new sensibility towards food and drink and those that commit their lives to nurturing the environment and crafting good products. In that light, I don't think terroir is getting diluted, but I do think we need to spend some time coming to collective agreement as to its importance in our food culture. Thus, winemakers in CA or OR or WA need to come together in some way and develop a shared understanding and communication about their terroir intelligence. THis could be a refinement of the AVA ssystem, or perhaps some entirely different effort. Ideally, when it comes to consumers, I hope terroir serves as a form of cultural discernment but does not get hijacked simply as a notion of connoisseurship, or the taste of certain elites.
Andrew Alden (alden) Fri 21 Nov 08 10:52
It looks like I've passed on Heimoff's book, but another book, "The Winemaker's Dance" by geologists Jonathan Swinchatt and David Howell, goed into terroir at length as a combination of geology, geography, climate, th vine and the humans involved. They quote Warren Winiarski of Stag's Leap as saying, "Without people, there is no terroir. It all rests on the '3 Gs'-- ground, grapes, and guys." The authors say of the winegrower and winemaker, without them "there is no wine and no expression of terroir. Starting with a vision, they activate the links that connect Earth with vine and fruit, oversee its maturation, and only then present th liquid that completes the cycle, connecting us with the Earth from which the wine arose." That process is the "winemaker's dance" they elucidate. Another quote they use is the French saying that "the Chardonnay grape is mainly a tool for extracting flavor from the soil."
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Fri 21 Nov 08 11:39
Here in the U.S., we tend to think of these decisions made from the options Nature offers as being scientifically based. To a great extent they are. But I'm very intrigued by another theme Amy suggests: that these decisions also reflect culture. Which is to say, the social and artistic and religious beliefs of the vignerons in, say, Bordeaux, likely play into their decision-making as much as their technical training does. Would Bordeaux wine taste different if it was made by Germans? I bet it would. Here in the States, the reason why I think Washington state is the U.S.'s most interesting wine-growing area right at the moment is because the cost of getting into the wine business up there still isn't prohibitive, so you've got more young people taking chances up there than you do in Napa or Sonoma counties. There are also a lot fewer wineries in Washington, at least right now, built as vanity projects by people who made extreme wealth elsewhere.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 21 Nov 08 16:50
I love what's happening in the beer world now, with wild beers. It's not proper to call them Lambics if they are not made in Belgium, but they are now being produced commericially and gettign more and more distinctive in America. A handful of commercial concerns have stepped beyond culturing those odder microbiota and are putting fresh wort out in the field to be "innoculated" by wild "critters." A beer called Beatification, from Russian River Brewing, is one example of this, and it both varies from batch to batch and has a distinct wild character. The brewer calls it a Sonambic for Somona County. It's sour, complex, horsey... wild and lambic-like. So can we add microbiotic ecology to geology and climate and human culture, at least for the fermentables, and perhaps for other foods, too?
Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Fri 21 Nov 08 19:07
Well of course the most obvious example that springs to mind is the famous San Francisco sourdough, which doesn't taste the same when made anywhere else because the starter doesn't have the same population of critters when it's propagated in different climates. But also, there is a lot going on in soil besides mineral content; I imagine that different communities of soil biota also play their part in contributing to terroir.
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